Afraid of Heights? Try Skydiving

Experts say the best way to conquer your fears is to face them head on.

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After hearing about the surprise $800,000 birthday bash that Jennifer Lopez gave her husband last Sunday—just hours after she finished a triathlon—I thought, that's nice, but my husband did her one better. As a surprise birthday present for me (also on Sunday), David took me skydiving, something that's been on my "bucket list" way before I'd even heard of the term. The reason my hubby trumps J-Lo is that he not only made all the arrangements but, at the last minute, decided to join me in the jump, even though he's seriously afraid of heights.

David (who's allowing me to reveal his phobia) always gets anxious crossing the Maryland Bay Bridge and won't look down from the terrace of a high-rise. Now, here he was about to jump out of a plane at 13,500 feet. "Don't be nervous," I told him as we signed the waivers stating that "you can be seriously injured or even killed as a result of your participation." He told me not to let him back out, that he wanted to conquer his fear of heights by exposing himself to a, well, truly terrifying experience: a freefall for about 40 seconds at 100-plus miles per hour followed by a four-minute parachute ride. (We did minimize the risks by doing a tandem dive, each of us strapped to an instructor the whole way down.

Later, after I congratulated my husband on facing his worst fear, I told him that because of my claustrophobia, I'd been more frightened of going into a closed flotation tank back when I wrote about flotation as a stress-relief technique than I'd felt jumping out of the plane. And that got me wondering, what causes phobias anyway? Did my husband do the sensible thing in facing his fears head-on?

"In essence, he did," says psychologist David Carbonell, director of the Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago. "But the devil is in the details." Overcoming a phobia by exposing yourself to it can be extremely effective under the following conditions:

  • You're not being coerced or cajoled into it but are choosing on your own to face an irrational fear.
  • You're willing to let yourself be afraid during the experience.
  • You have the means to soothe yourself when you're going through it.
  • Clearly, I wasn't pushing David to jump; in fact, he'd resolved to do it before he let me in on my surprise. He also realized it was going to be tough but consoled himself with the sense of accomplishment he knew he'd feel afterward. All of these things, says Carbonell, help to override the brain's stress response that automatically quickens your heart rate and breathing when you feel afraid. You're enabling your brain's cerebral cortex, or reasoning center, to kick in, he explains, which helps you deal with the fear more rationally. Over time, with repeated exposure to the fear, you can desensitize your brain to it and overcome it completely.

    Why do we fear the things we do? It turns out many of our fears stem from genetic programming, based on things our ancestors feared in the past like poisonous snakes, dangerous cliffs, rabid dogs. "Hardly anyone fears bunny rabbits," Carbonell says, "though I did see one woman who was tremendously afraid of lobsters to the point that she couldn't even look at a picture of them." He says my claustrophobia could stem from prehistoric cave dwelling days when humans would be trapped after avalanches without air.

    Fears may or may not be triggered by actual events. A friend of mine became terrified of dogs after being bitten by a Doberman. But sometimes phobias just result from excess stress. "Often people who become afraid of flying are in life situations where they feel a lot of pressure and need to control everything," Carbonell explains, "then they go on a plane and everything is out of their control, which makes them anxious." My claustrophobia became almost unbearable 10 years ago when I was traveling to Israel with my 6-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter; perhaps the hardships of the long trip with two little ones made the plane and crowded buses seem that much more stifling.

    When should you seek professional help? If your fears are reducing the quality of your life. For instance, a fear of heights may not matter much in the flat Midwest but could restrict your driving activities if you live near the mountainous California coast. Carbonell says he employs various techniques to help his patients overcome their fears, such as teaching them how to breathe more slowly and deeply when they're stressed. You can find more tips on his anxietycoach.com website.

    Do you have a phobia? Have you been able to overcome it? Let me know what it was and how you overcame it.